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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- Julia Murphy traveled all the way from her home in Germany to stand last Saturday in Temple Square, the historic park complex that makes up the international headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Inside the square, sermons and hymns played on loudspeakers. Thousands of the faithful had arrived for the bi-annual General Conference, with many people lounging on the grass under a bright fall sun. The Mormon priests – that is, males older than 12 who are deemed worthy – waited for their session to begin. Many women were waiting to listen to a live broadcast of the event, a first.
But Murphy was about a block away, gathering with more than 150 Mormon feminists and their supporters, members of Ordain Women, an organization that supports the ordination of Mormon women to the priesthood.
Their plan: to walk to Temple Square and enter the priesthood session – another first. Women are not allowed into the session.
For many, they would be attending their first demonstration, albeit one with hymnals and politic discussions instead of signs and chanting.
The issue of priesthood is so important to Murphy that she trekked from Heidelberg for this moment. She and her husband converted from Catholicism in 2000. But from the beginning, Murphy said she struggled with the division of labor and leadership opportunities inside the church. She listened to men talk about how spiritual their experience was sitting at the High Council, which is reserved for priests.
“I don’t have that opportunity to experience that wonderful spiritual experience,'' she said. "I’m making a casserole.''
Pioneers in different ways
Ordain Women is made up of proud Mormons – a few are quick to note their pioneer blood. But they take serious issue with what they see as gender inequality within the church. And they believe one solution to this issue is to get women in leadership and decision-making roles, like the priesthood, currently only open to men.
Many of the activists here see a similarity between their movement and the one that led to blacks joining the priesthood in the late 1970s – although the movement for the ordination of women likely doesn’t have the same popular support among Mormons.
For some, the demonstration was part of a far larger movement. The ordination of women in the Mormon church, they think, might be the unlikely wedge in a greater struggle for women’s equality.
“Every religion on the face of the planet is overtly discriminating against women and we’re all still OK with it,” said Chelsea Shields Strayer, an organizer with Ordain Women and a writer at the Mormon women's issues publication Exponent.
As women gain power in politics and other occupations, she noted, males still dominate decision-making positions in religious institutions. And Mormonism is especially suited to lead the way to change that, she thinks.
“Mormonism, at the core, believes in a woman and a male God … '' Strayer said. "We don’t have that in other religions. That’s a beautiful concept. But we don’t talk about it a lot. Inherently we believe men and women are equal – that men’s contribution and women’s contribution should be equal. We don’t see it in practice but we have it in doctrine … It could be a kind of beacon to religions around the world.''
There is more of a reason to see why women could be granted the priesthood in Mormonism compared to, say, Roman Catholicism, notes Margaret Toscano, another organizer for Ordain Women as well as a professor at the University of Utah and longtime activist in women’s issues.
“Mormonism, of all the sort of conservative religions, has the strongest historical and theological justification for giving women priesthood,” Toscano said.
Toscano also thinks the Mormon church’s history of changing its position on other issues – from polygamy to blacks – will help this women’s movement.
“[Mormonism] has the notion of change to meet new circumstances,” Toscano noted.
But she says she doesn’t think it will happen soon. There is more resistance to ordaining women than the church had for ordaining blacks, she thinks.
“They might accept gay marriage before they ordain women,” Toscano said.
A walk in the park
The women and supporters of Ordain Women formed two lines, prayed, and began their walk onto Temple Square, passing youths and men also headed to the conference, their fingers up in the air signifying how many tickets they wanted from those who had extra. Alongside them, sidewalk preachers proselytized against the teachings of Joseph Smith.
Once inside Temple Square, the line halted as organizers met amicably with church spokesperson Ruth Todd.
“We were expecting you,” Todd said.
Organizers of the walk were instructed to move the line to the side of the entrance in order to not block the males trying to enter the session. And with the line stopped, and surrounded by media, conference attendees began to take notice.
“There must be someone famous,” a young man said to the person beside him.
“Millions of women in the church do not share the views of this really quite small group of women that organized today’s protest,'' Todd said in a statement to the press. "In the doctrine of the Mormon church women and men are absolutely equal … You need to talk to the millions in this church that feel equal.''
She has statistics on her side. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found only one in 10 Mormons believed the priesthood should be open to women. Many in Temple Square at the time of Ordain Women’s demonstration seemed to not know what the issue was about.
There was a meeting a week ago of 21,000 women – known as the Relief Society – that was meant to strengthen the women of the church, Todd said, and Saturday was meant to strengthen the men of the church.
Kathryn Skaggs, a blogger at “Well-Behaved Mormon Woman,” doesn’t agree with the outside agitation of Ordain Women. It’s not their job to push a revelation, she said.
“On a personal level, I don’t feel like there is a void in my life, to fill with leadership in the church, to feel validated as a woman,” Skaggs said. For her, the issue of women’s equality, while valid in the world, doesn’t apply within the church where God has designated different roles for men and women.
“I really believe that what God is trying to do with each of us is make us equal to him, versus what the world wants to do which is to make men and women the same,” Skaggs said.
The September Six
There is a healthy online community of bloggers and groups dedicated to Mormon feminism. But rarely do they make their physical presence known.
“We have never done an action this bold,” said Strayer of Ordain Women.
Many were nervous about showing up, according to Strayer. And there are those who would not attend because they fear it will damage relationships at home – including with their own spouse.
This September marked the 20th anniversary of the excommunication or disfellowship of six high-profile intellectual members of the church – dubbed by local media as the September Six.
Margaret Toscano’s husband was one of those excommunicated. She describes the 1993 disciplinary actions as a purge of intellectuals, feminists, and scholars. In 2000, after writing on feminist issues for nearly twenty years, the church also called her in for a disciplinary council, which one must enter alone.
“When I went through that disciplinary council there were 16 men sitting in judgment of me,'' Toscano said. "And they decided to cut me off from the church. The accusation was apostasy.''
Now, she thinks there is too much publicity for those who participated in the demonstration to face institutional punishment.
After standing in line for an hour or so, it was clear the women wouldn't be allowed entry. Their tactics changed. Each of those in line politely asked the male church representative standing in front of the entrance whether they might enter the priesthood session. And when refused entry, just as politely, she would turn to leave.
Kimberly Baptista, a member of Ordain Women, sat watching the dwindling line of activists as the sun turned red on Temple Square.
What she hadn’t expected was how emotional the experience would be today, she said, how humiliating it was for many of the women being denied entrance by a man who had authority over them. And how hurtful it was when the men entering the priesthood session would avert their eyes as they walked past.
“You think we would be used to it,” Baptista said.